Ask the pilot

Note to self: Never, ever underestimate the public's hatred for the airlines!

Published March 2, 2007 12:11PM (EST)

The response to my column on the art and science of weather delays was swift, brutal and all but unanimous. Not since my defense of the word "stewardess" a couple of weeks earlier had I been so relentlessly pummeled. By Sunday, readers had posted close to 200 letters, united in angry disagreement with my failure to endorse a federally mandated "Passenger Bill of Rights" as a way of avoiding incidents like the one that recently left thousands of JetBlue customers stranded aboard aircraft for up to 10 hours.

Taken together, the sentiment was blunt and overwhelming. Separately, those readers who weren't openly hostile, sarcastic and foulmouthed were able to offer a cogent and persuasive argument that, in the end, has forced me to reconsider. Suffice it to say, the Passengers Have Spoken. But before I formally raise the white flag, let me reiterate a few points. Scanning the feedback, I'm perplexed by the number of people who seem to believe that I don't sympathize with the plight of stranded travelers. Upon reaching a sort of critical mass, the letters seem to draw more from each other than from anything posed in the original column.

Not once, anywhere, did I maintain that it's acceptable practice for an airline to hold people on a plane against their will, subjecting them to a lack of food and overflowing toilets. I never thought that, I never said that, I never wrote that. Opposition to the proposed regulation is not, by default, an endorsement of pain and suffering, as dozens of posted opinions seem to have it. This thinking is along the same lines as reading one's opposition to the Iraq war as "not supporting the troops" sent to fight it. Bollocks to that. Airline delays are complex and fickle -- the types of situations that don't respond well to regulation based on arbitrary time limits. Such rules, somewhat analogous to the mandatory sentencing guidelines so despised by many judges and public defenders, tend to cause more problems than they solve.

And if I may pout for a moment: Explaining the guts of airline operations is not easy, and few voices in media do it with any degree of accuracy or savvy. Am I really a "know-it-all" and "pedantic" for trying? And while accusations that I'm a closet conservative were easy to laugh off, the same can't be said for those calling me "elitist" ("elitist prick" was the exact phrasing) and out of touch. "Leave it to an airline pilot to be completely out of touch," wrote somebody named Veronica. "No surprise, I guess. They do breathe that rarefied air of those who work under 100 work hours per month, get paid up to approximately $150,000 a year, can have two careers if they like ... or spend the rest of their time off figuring out how they'll spend their investment earnings."

Who exactly needs the reality check? Before continuing, I invite Veronica, and anyone else who still harbors such ridiculous presumptions about the lives and incomes of pilots, to read here, here or here.

I guess you don't need to be rich to be "an elitist prick," but trust me, there's not a whole lot of rarefied air around here, and not much investing going on when a pilot's lifetime career earnings can be itemized as follows:

1990: $12,000
1991: $17,000
1992: $22,000
1993: $36,000
1994: Laid off
1995: $14,000
1996: Laid off
1997: Laid off
1998: $24,000
1999: $40,000
2000: $50,000
2001: $59,000
2002: Laid off
2003: Laid off
2004: Laid off
2005: Laid off
2006: Laid off

Is that too much of a temper tantrum? Too much information? Let me guess, I'm "asking for pity" and expecting the audience to "feel bad." Get those letters coming.

Then there's the outrage over my analogies: "Let me ask you this," I had written. "Is the call center at my bank obligated under federal law to answer its phones in a certain amount of time? When UPS delivers a package late, is it beholden by an act of Congress to make amends?"

That had readers and bloggers going ballistic. In hindsight those were terrible examples, but the intended point was only that it sets a bad precedent once you begin legislating customer service -- and those are examples of customer service. Obviously -- or maybe not -- I don't equate being put on hold or receiving a tardy package with being locked in a plane all day. I wrongly assumed readers would see past the raw mechanics of the comparison.

There comes a threshold, I freely admit, when a prolonged delay is no longer a customer service issue at all, but rather one of health, safety and basic civility. The trouble is, the "Bill of Rights" proposals I've seen address more than just delays, targeting things like overbooking and lost luggage and the timeliness of announcements. If they stuck to the core issue, rather than initiating a free-for-all against everything people don't like about airlines, I'd be more sympathetic to signing on.

Something needs to be done, and I concede that free-market fixes are especially difficult in a realm where "competition" is often academic. The proverbial take-your-business-elsewhere remedy is only so useful when, for the most part, all U.S. carriers sell basically the same product for basically the same price, undercutting one another at every turn. Inexpensive tickets and tiny margins give us poor, or at least equivalent, service across the board.

For as long as price remains the driving force of demand -- and it will -- we're probably stuck with this. Imagine an airline that decides to charge, say, $20 more per flight than its closest competitor in exchange for greater comforts and a promise to treat its clients like human beings. Although a limited number of people would happily pay, most would not, and I'm afraid that airline would be out of business within two weeks. It's not as if carriers haven't considered this, and time and time again it is proven that the flying public will always -- always -- go for the best price.

Be that as it may, I wouldn't entirely rule out the industry's ability to "get the message" and make amends. In the aftermath of the fiasco at JFK, bludgeoned by bad publicity and fearing large lawsuits, JetBlue swiftly drafted a proactive customer contract that includes, among other promises, a $1,000 reward for any passenger involuntarily denied boarding and a time limit on delays (the carrier calls them "controllable irregularities"). Is that not, basically, what the federal legislation would call for? The rest of the industry should follow.

But since it hasn't and probably won't, I'll tell you what: You can have your delay law. Whether because sagas like the one at JetBlue are so infrequent or in spite of the fact, I'll give it my blessing. At a certain threshold, delay becomes involuntary confinement, and if it takes an act of Congress to ensure that airlines understand this, so be it. My only condition is that government and the airline industry must, together and simultaneously, address the root causes of these breakdowns in the first place: an underfunded air traffic control system and scheduling practices that overburden said system, both on the ground and in the sky.

Allow me to author the statute for you: During any aircraft ground delay exceeding 120 minutes beyond closure of the main cabin door, passengers are to be given the option of disembarking.

Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Mike Thompson's proposal stipulates three hours; I'll give you the bonus hour as part of my penance for being, as an e-mailer so eloquently put it, "one stupid motherfucker." From this point on, no more "kidnapping" or "unlawful imprisonment" at the hands of JetBlue, American, Northwest or any of the other known offenders. Either the airline lets you off, or it owes you a great big pile of money and a lifetime supply of pretzels.

Just be careful what you wish for, and don't say I didn't warn you.

For instance, picture yourself on a delayed 767 going from New York to San Francisco. Parked out on the taxiway, your assigned wheels-up time is only a half-hour away. But because the 120-minute mark has just elapsed, the crew must ask if anybody wishes to get off. A hand is raised.

There are 215 passengers on the plane, but only one of them wants to leave (he's going to miss his connection to Shanghai, anyway, he figures, so why bother). The plane will now taxi back to the gate and dock. Using portable stairs won't work -- not that you're allowed to drive stairs onto an active taxiway in a snowstorm -- because the guy has two suitcases somewhere below, and they too need to be removed.

And because going back and forth to the terminal will burn 2,500 pounds of kerosene, the plane must also be refueled. The flight is near its maximum gross weight and the weather on the West Coast is foggy; en route and alternate airport minimums have put things right at the legal limit, so there's no way around this.

Removing people and luggage and revising the fuel load will additionally entail a new weight-and-balance manifest, and possibly, because the flight will miss its wheels-up time, a whole new flight plan.

Coordinating all of this will involve a large number of personnel -- most of whom are, at the moment, dealing with other flights -- and require a considerable amount of time. (Once this rule goes into effect, carriers will begin hiring more staff, and upping ticket prices to cover the cost.) Let's be conservative and say, despite the falling snow, icy tarmac and logjam of tardy planes, everything takes an hour. You're now a bare minimum of 30 minutes later than you would have been without returning to the gate. Throw in the need to de-ice, or the possibility of the crew running up against duty time regs, and it's substantially worse. And oh, missing that wheels-up time means you'll be assigned a new one, and lo and behold it's another two hours away. ATC doesn't really care about your particular problems, because it's working 164 other planes in similar situations.

You can argue that the ATC slot/wheels-up protocols can and should be amended, and to be honest controllers are not always that strict about it. But the rest isn't negotiable.

I posted a version of this scenario in last week's letters section. One respondent called it "ridiculous" and "a Perfect Storm." I'd say that better applies to crises like the one that struck JetBlue. More than 20,000 commercial flights operate in America every day. How many of them are stuck on taxiways for 10 hours? Complications like those just described, on the other hand, occur all the time.

One afternoon last summer I was flying from Boston to JFK. After a long gate delay, two passengers asked to deplane, only minutes away, it turned out, from our release time. Subsequent removal of their luggage held things up just long enough for half the people on the plane to miss their international connections at Kennedy.

And last, can we please maintain some perspective. There's a context of relativity here that, I feel, many travelers miss: When you step on board an airplane, the expectation is that you are going to be carried thousands of miles away, at hundreds of miles per hour, on a journey that, even when everything goes right, often takes many hours. These are the same trips that once took days, weeks or even months by land or sea. I hate to say it, but therefore the stakes are higher when something goes wrong. Although what happened at Kennedy airport on Valentine's Day was extreme and unpardonable, most delays and snafus, in the context of what you are doing and where you are going, are perhaps not as outrageous as they seem.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the 19 largest U.S. carriers combined made 7,141,922 scheduled flights in 2006. Of those, 75.5 percent arrived on time or better. (The best-scoring airports last year were Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Baltimore; the worst were Newark, LaGuardia, O'Hare and JFK.) Of the approximately 25 percent of flights that were late, roughly 8 percent were victimized by air traffic congestion; 6 percent by airline operational problems; and less than 1 percent by weather directly. The average delay was about 10 minutes long.

Will that make you feel better the next time you're stuck in the back of a plane, thumbing through SkyMall for the 11th time?

I didn't think so.

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Next week: The facts and fallacy of cabin air

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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